The gospel according to Luke
Luke Kelly, who died 20 years ago, was the most fiery member of The Dubliners, and the most politicised, writes Siobhán Long
International socialist, poet, actor, raucous storyteller, five-string banjo player or folk icon? Luke Kelly was many things to many people. He was the most politicised member of The Dubliners, the one who shed light on the human stories behind some of the band's best songs, including Joe Hill, The Molly Maguires and Kelly The Boy From Kilane. He was the fiery redhead who brooked no arguments with punters who couldn't still themselves long enough to unravel the intricate wordplay of Paddy Kavanagh's Raglan Road. He was the voice that lured the most reluctant listeners into the circle where songs reigned supreme.
He died 20 years ago, on January 30th, 1984, aged 43. Two decades later, The Dubliners have released a double CD, The Best Of Luke Kelly, in tribute to the man who defined the band's identity every bit as much as Ronnie Drew did. It's been a labour of love for John Sheahan, the quiet man of The Dubliners, and Luke's younger brother, Jimmy, a singer well-known in Dublin music circles.
"Things tend to happen in The Dubliners," Sheahan offers with his customary mildness, "rather than someone making them happen. We did something for Luke's first anniversary in the National Concert Hall, and we donated the funds to a cancer fund in the name of Luke for Beaumont Hospital, and then we did the same thing for his 10th. So it was natural enough to think of this landmark."
Releasing a double album of Luke's songs didn't come without its trials. There was the matter of regaining possession of some of the band's back catalogue if a definitive collection was to be released.
Sheahan explains the realities of recording with the kind of matter-of-fact attention to detail that reflects the man's quiet, unsung modus operandi.
"We acquired these master tapes back from Outlet Records," he says, with a nonchalance worthy of a musician long weathered in the fits and foibles of the music business. "We took them to the High Court in Belfast, so we got back 11 or 12 albums, from 1968-73, which was a very valuable period, with many of Luke's good recordings among them."
Surprisingly, the trawl through the archives which led to this 31-song collection wasn't undertaken by Sheahan or The Dubliners themselves, but by Fiachra Sheahan, John's son and lifelong Dubliners fanatic.
"Fiachra's taken an interest in the group since the age of eight," Sheahan says, "and Luke was his godfather. He has an incredibly detailed knowledge of The Dubliners. He knows every track, where it was recorded and who they were leased out to. He's even got a database with every track categorised, what instruments were played and where other versions of the same track were recorded." LUKE KELLY NEVER recorded a solo album, but this collection comes close to capturing the spirit of the man, with 18 songs taken from studio recordings and a further 13 from live shows, reflecting the kinetic energy of Kelly's live performance, which was largely responsible for forging his reputation both at home and away.
"I think Fiachra was right to separate the live tracks from the studio-recorded ones," Sheahan says. With a host of compilation albums having been released over the past two decades, featuring a mixed bag of Kelly's songs, from the pristine to the ragged, it was time to redress the balance in favour of high-quality recordings married with a sufficiently eclectic mix to reflect the breadth and depth of the man's singing, not to mention his political motivations.
"Luke's been over-exploited with Pub Songs, The Best of and On The Road collections," Sheahan reckons, "whereas we feel there's more of a continuity in this collection, which sounds very much like a solo performance from Luke with The Dubliners backing him. It's like a whole evening with Luke."
Luke was heavily influenced by his encounter with Ewan McColl and other English folk singers he sang with during his travels in England in the early 1960s; his cover of Peggy Seeger's powerful diatribe against the slavery of coalmining, Springhill Mining Disaster, is considered the definitive reading of the song, which has been adopted by everyone from U2 to Kerry singer Pauline Scanlon.
"It was a very important time," Sheahan recounts. "I remember when Luke would come home for the weekend, he'd come out to play with us in Howth, and people would be amazed at the songs he was bringing back from England, like The Shoals of Herring, and The Travelling People and Dirty Old Town. All wonderful songs. And his singing at that time was tremendous."
Kelly's socialist politics were undoubtedly a big influence on The Dubliners, although Sheahan is quick to emphasise the essential democracy of the group.
"We were all left-leaning, but Luke was definitely the most leftist," Sheahan smiles. "Luke was a socialist in the real sense of the word. There used to be a joke in the 1960s that a socialist was someone who had nothing and wanted to share it with everyone. Luke had things to share, and he was very charitable in his own private way, and never looked for attention for it."
Both Kelly and Sheahan recount stories of Luke's generosity of spirit and pocket. As well as quietly paying off the mortgage of a friend who had fallen on hard times, he opened up the basement of his house to a Belfast family whose own home had been burned to the ground in the early 1970s. The family lived with him for more than 10 years.
Jimmy Kelly has carried the torch on Luke's behalf in Dublin's revered singing circles over the past two decades. His voice is uncannily close to his brother's, his delivery is equally spirited, and his song store is richly augmented by the inheritance Luke left him.
His affection and admiration for his brother is tangible, even to the casual listener who hears him sharing a song at the weekly singing sessions in The Clé Club in Liberty Hall. He paints a picaresque picture of an older brother for whom songs were everything.
"LUKE HAD TWO lives," Jimmy insists. "One, up to the age of seventeen-and-a-half, when he left home and went to the Isle of Man and then to England, and the second when he joined The Dubliners. I remember Luke as a Sinatra man when he was young, and singing Pat Boone's Love Letters In The Sand in a competition in the Assembly Hall in Whitehall. I remember him selling vacuum cleaners in England, and coming home one Christmas wearing a beautiful gaberdine coat and gloves. He used to go to the jazz clubs a lot in England. He was interested in all kinds of music."
Luke Kelly wasn't a man to spend his nights huddled by the hearth at home. Sheahan recounts how Luke introduced Paul Simon to an English audience in London's Troubadour Club for the first time, and how Art Garfunkel navigated his way out to the Embankment to meet Luke after a show, only to be turned away because the place was locked up.
Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, old buddies of Luke's from his nights frequenting Ronnie Scott's nightclub, sent wreaths when Luke died. Rumour had it too that Luke was the one who propelled Bob Dylan on stage at the Newport Folk Festival.
"He knew everybody," Sheahan laughs gently. "As long as there were songs to be sung, Luke was there, in the thick of it."
The Best Of Luke Kelly is available on Celtic Airs Records. The Dubliners play a week-long concert series in the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from October 24th to 30th, featuring special guests Ronnie Drew, Shane MacGowan and George Murphy. Bookings at 01-6771717 or e-mail email@example.com